Need to know
Traumatic life events engulf us in chaos and uncertainty. Often, as a coping mechanism, we shut out the world and withdraw within ourselves. In extreme cases, we become fearful of community and human contact. Trauma takes a heavy toll on our emotional and mental health, and continues to haunt us even when we have physically emerged from the life events that caused it. Trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and manifests in the form of anxiety, depression, anger, exhaustion or oscillating emotions. For people dealing with trauma, writing – and especially life writing – can be very therapeutic. Over and above seeking professional mental health support, I also suggest using writing as a way to heal.
As someone who has survived domestic violence, I have been through it all. Nine years after I ran for my life with a six-month-old in my arms, I find my PTSD manifesting itself in many ways. Seemingly innocuous incidents sometimes trigger my trauma and I find myself reliving my past anxieties and stresses, remembering the days I lived with a violent and abusive partner.
What is keeping me afloat, though, is writing. During my nearly five-year-long abusive marriage and for nine years after, when I left my partner but continued to face different forms of harassment from him, I used my writing to help me heal. Expressive writing is often prescribed as therapy to improve mental health. And I did a lot of it initially, immediately after I left my partner: I wrote about the different forms of abuse I faced, and I also wrote about my fears, uncertainties and trauma as well as the day-to-day challenges of being a single mother. This writing was unstructured, ungrammatical even, because it was aimed merely at releasing pent-up feelings. I suggest you try it too when you’re overwhelmed by emotions and feel paralysed by them. It is cathartic.
What helped me more than expressive writing, however, is life writing. In 1919, Virginia Woolf complained in her diary: ‘Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.’ Life writing is about giving pause to the self to deal with this ‘mound of reflections’ and review one’s life from a critical distance. Simply put, it is nonfiction writing on a person’s life and experiences reconstructed from memory and linked to a larger theme of universal concern.
Life writing encompasses a variety of genres – from autobiography and memoir to diaries and journals, as well as oral testimonies and eyewitness accounts. Writing short memoir pieces and personal essays proved most therapeutic, helping me reflect on my situation, accept it, reach out to people through it and, finally, heal. I wrote a newspaper article on why I married a wife-beater and another on why men abuse women with impunity, and the process helped me realise that, in writing about my trauma, I was also acquiring certain life skills that were helping me cope in my day-to-day life. In giving vent to my deep-seated pain and sadness, I was learning to accept them as a part of me. In accepting, I was healing; and, in sharing my story with my readers, I was emerging from my isolation and seeking solidarity. Victims of domestic violence remain silent because, often, they aren’t believed. But the response from my readers overwhelmed me. I found strength to move on. Subsequently, I concentrated on my scholarship and on publishing other forms of writing – social and academic – and started teaching students how to write.
For two years now, I have taught students at the University of Pennsylvania how writing skills are also life skills; I’ve brought the emphasis to writing workshops in my greater Philadelphia community as well. Like life – and survival – writing follows an organic trajectory where the individual must go from acknowledging one’s pain and defining it to confronting it, through action and words. To overcome one’s trauma is to be able to distance oneself from it, and writing teaches one how to achieve that critical distance.
What to do
To cope with your trauma and heal from feelings of isolation, uncertainty, depression and loss of control, I suggest you try writing about your life too. You needn’t launch into a full-length memoir if you haven’t attempted the genre before; instead, you might like to start with short fragments in the form of a personal essay. Later, you can string them together thematically or chronologically to make a full-length memoir. If not, you would still have written the one essay that will stand on its own.
Each step in the process, listed below, will teach you key skills. By applying these skills to your life, you can own your trauma. By owning it, you’ll find the strength to overcome it. What’s more, by the end of the process, you will have a completed piece of writing that you can share with your readers or even try to publish.
Step 1: Identify a topic (skill: learning acceptance)
The first step in writing a personal essay or memoir is to identify a single topic or theme around which the narrative can be woven. To find this topic among your life’s rich experiences, you can critically look back and name a specific emotion, challenge or trauma you wish to address through your writing. This will require facing your vulnerabilities and accepting the challenge or trauma as a part of you. When you accept your vulnerability, you’re also building the strength you’ll need to overcome it. For instance, writing about her obesity in Guernica magazine in 2017, Carmen Maria Machado accepts that she grew up hating her own body and ‘participating in my own oppression in grotesque ways’. In a society that treats fat women as jokes and aberrations, she describes her struggle to accept herself without shame and guilt.
From this acceptance comes the ability to overcome, one step at a time. Writing about her struggle with a prophylactic mastectomy and the subsequent reconstructive surgery in Granta magazine in 2018, Nell Boeschenstein comes to understand that she elected for reconstruction for the same reasons that some other women choose silicone implants: ‘vanity, beauty standards, a desire to feel good about oneself’. Her account of her journey toward this acceptance transforms her essay into a deep critical reflection on the cultural distinctions we make between ‘fake boobs’ cosmetically enhanced, and ‘fake boobs’ surgically reconstructed. Thus, while focusing on personal trauma, the personal essay can also elevate writers beyond their immediate circumstances and connect them to larger concerns. It puts the pain in perspective for them and for their readers.
Framing your topic, then, is as important as identifying it because how you frame it will determine the direction in which you’ll grow, both as a writer and as a survivor. Both Machado and Boeschenstein learn to accept their bodies by putting in perspective the social and cultural norms that determine what desirable women should look like. This is how Machado reclaims her power and ‘audacity of space-taking’ through her writing, and Boeschenstein grows out of her culturally programmed ‘desire to disdain any choices women make’.
Step 2: Develop the topic (skill: gaining metacognition and awareness through reflection)
The memoir/personal essay is inward-looking to the extent that its primary topic is derived from one’s life experience. However, when you develop this experience around a particular theme or topic that has larger relevance, it gains resonance with your readers and connects you to them. In other words, the inward gaze that informs your writing is also outward-looking and aims at building connections with the world around you. For example, if you want to write about how you felt isolated during the lockdown and social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, your fears and anxieties are yours alone; nobody else can write about them. But speak to somebody outside of your household, or read what others have to say about their own lockdown experiences, and you realise you aren’t really alone. Thus, it helps at this stage of writing to do some research and find out what others in similar situations did, felt or overcame, and how. It not only gives you strength in your everyday life, but also makes your writing richer. It connects you to every other person who is also feeling the same emotion under similar circumstances. What’s more, your writing becomes richer when you establish this universal connection instead of remaining caught up in the specificity of your situation. Connectedness with a global phenomenon will go a long way toward assuaging your personal sense of isolation and helping you navigate through it.
You will recognise this connection through reflection, by critically thinking through your emotions and experiences. When you’re reading or researching, you’re also absorbing information. Reflection helps you process this information and connect it to your life. It also gives you the rare ability to understand and make sense of your life as you live through it, giving you more control over it.
Controlling your life’s narrative in this way requires the same kind of critical thinking essential to the writing process. While your content explores connections with larger concerns, your structure will have to support a logical narrative that connects the personal with the public, the specific with the universal. In writing your essay/memoir, you might begin from the universal and deconstruct it until you reach the specific. Alternatively, you can go from the specific and build up to the universal. Or, if you prefer, you can braid the two together through parallel narratives. Both form and content are thus dependent on metacognitive reflection: on your life, to show how it’s connected to other lives, and on your craft, determining the language and architecture of your writing.
Step 3: Write and review (skill: building community)
Given the amount of introspection involved, writing usually feels like a solitary job. When you’re recollecting and reflecting on your experiences, when you’re framing them and deciding on the best way to present them to your reader, it’s natural to feel you’re on your own. Structuring your essay and drafting it are also tasks that you must perform by yourself. However, implicit in this solitary activity is a whole network of people and processes that inform and are influenced by it. For one, it’s hard to contemplate a life unpeopled by friends, family and acquaintances. In writing about your personal trauma, you will necessarily also write about the people who caused it, mitigated it or minimised it. If reading a certain book helped you through the toughest times in your life, the author of that book is also a part of your life.
When you begin the process of writing, your readers are part of your process, even if you don’t know them personally. No matter what you write, you always have a reader in mind, however amorphous.
If you think about it, writing is embedded in community and is also an exercise in building community. Writing a memoir/personal essay is especially powerful in this regard because, by sharing intimate aspects of your life, you’ve placed your trust in a community that believes you. Especially for trauma survivors, it needs to be a safe space. Therefore, in the writing classes I conduct, I keep the number of participants very small, and allow space for withdrawal where needed. The process of healing takes time and, most importantly, it needs the support of an intimate and nurturing community.
If you’re not part of a writing community and start to feel alone while writing, reach out to fellow writers. You can search for writing groups in your local library, or via online neighbourhood spaces such as the Nextdoor app, and join them at any stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to looking for publishers. Moreover, in the age of social media, online writers’ groups are easily accessible and many of them are nurturing, safe spaces. Look for moderated private groups rather than open, public ones. Leaning on fellow writers is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it suggests that you have the clarity to recognise where you need help, and the strength to accept it when offered.
Step 4: Publish (skill: taking ownership)
Through the process of writing, a survivor can build the strength to publish their life story with all its imperfections and emotional turbulence. If they can publicly own their vulnerabilities and write about the emotions that traumatise them, they’re able to step out of their closed container of grief, fear, guilt, shame or pain. It can be the difference between speaking out and being silenced all over again.
Of course, this is not an easy task for survivors, and adds to the many emotional and mental challenges they deal with in their daily lives. The fear of being judged is real, even for people without PTSD. But it’s beneficial for survivors to learn how to deal with external evaluation. Being able to continue writing and living despite rejection and criticism is what turns a victim into a survivor. Like their memoir/personal essay, the writer’s personal life is always subject to outside inspection. Processing reviews and feedback is the same in everyday life as in writing. The way in which the writer processes feedback from editors and readers reflects how they cope with rejection or praise in real life. If they can take ownership of their life and writing, rebuffs or rejections from editors will help them enhance their craft rather than discouraging them from writing ever again.
In my writing classes, I make it optional for writers to publish their essays. I do, however, consistently encourage them to consider it in order to start building newer, stronger selves.
Key points – How to heal through life writing
If you’re ready to write your memoir/personal essay, remember the following key points:
- For people dealing with trauma, writing – and especially life writing – can be very therapeutic.
- Life writing and the personal essay focus on one emotion or experience in your life, but your writing should connect it to larger concerns. What makes you vulnerable might be your immediate circumstances, but these circumstances are informed by systems, processes or problems. Identify those through research: this could range from speaking to people around you to scholarly reading.
- When writing, you might want to look inward before looking outward. Through the process of writing, learn acceptance: accept your emotional and physical scars and don’t be afraid to share your vulnerabilities. Reflect critically upon your life and find out what makes you part of a larger universe.
- Grief is private, grieving doesn’t have to be. Embrace community, whether in the writing process or in overcoming the challenge that you write about. The community of fellow writers, editors, readers and reviewers will help you polish your craft; the community of friends, family, coworkers and fellow sufferers around you will provide solidarity, support and the strength to go on.
- Learn to take ownership of your life and shape it the way you want through writing. Use the perspective of others to create a better version of yourself and your writing, but don’t allow it to silence you.
- Write and live as a survivor, not as a victim. Then, when you’re ready to share your writing with your readers, know that you’re no longer just a survivor, but a victor!
The memoir, the personal essay and the confessional essay are the three most common forms of life writing. While an autobiography charts the entire course of one’s life, these three forms of writing explore particular facets of it.
You can think of a memoir as a nonfictional novel based on a certain period, theme or cast of characters that have special meaning in your life. It’s usually a book-length work with multiple chapters covering hundreds of pages. You can design a memoir as you would design a traditional novel, making your story a unified experience and weaving in a narrative that flows from chapter to chapter, leading the reader on an uninterrupted journey. Alternatively, you can string together a series of essays telling different stories about your life. Your anthology can be given narrative coherence by grouping or sequencing the individual essays chronologically or thematically.
These shorter pieces are known as personal essays. They’re more focused than a memoir, and more centred and singular in approach. As mentioned above, a personal essay picks on a particular theme or topic and narrates the writer’s life experience around it. Like a memoir, it requires reflection and metacognition. It also requires social awareness and the ability to turn the writerly gaze outside of one’s self. In other words, though shorter in length and smaller in scope than a memoir, the personal essay, like the memoir, is not a self-absorbed self-analysis but a commentary on and connection with ‘something bigger’.
This is where the confessional essay comes under attack: it has been vilified in contemporary criticism as a type of life writing that’s self-centred, sensational and clickbaity. A subgenre of the personal essay, the confessional essay often focuses on conventionally taboo topics such as rape and incest. It also divulges the secrets of female pleasure and thrives on self-humiliation. And, significantly, it is a genre that has been overwhelmingly shaped by women in recent times.
Despite allegations that women writers are usurping the personal essay space to air their dirty laundry in public, the confessional essay is here to stay. While, as critics claim, confessional writing might not connect the personal to the political or social through its content, its form itself is a political statement: it empowers women, hitherto marginalised, to tell stories that were never given any space in the ‘mainstream’.
You can pick from any of these subgenres and begin exploring the possibilities of healing through life writing. The journey from victimhood to survival begins from within – sometimes with, sometimes aside from receiving professional help; you can also start healing yourself by following the four steps detailed above. Each stage teaches you a key life skill that will help rebuild a strong and victorious life.
Links & books
Here’s a list of personal essays that will make you think not just about people’s lives and how every life is connected to the world outside, but also about the craft of writing itself: ‘The Price of Black Ambition’ (2014) by Roxane Gay, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ (1955) by James Baldwin, ‘Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide’ (2013) by Tim Bascom, ‘Drinking Chai to Savannah’ (2017) by Anjali Enjeti, ‘A Few Words About Breasts’ (1972) by Nora Ephron, ‘A Few Words About Fake Breasts’ (2018) by Nell Boeschenstein, ‘The Trash Heap Has Spoken’ (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado, ‘My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant’ (2011) by Jose Antonio Vargas, ‘Acting French’ (2014) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ (2012) by Rebecca Solnit.
You might also want to read these books on writing and life writing:
- Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (2016) edited by Meredith Maran: an inspirational guide to the memoirist’s craft.
- The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir (2008) edited by Jennifer Traig: insightful and powerful strategies from writers including Elizabeth Gilbert, Nick Hornby and Maxine Hong Kingston.
- The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1997) edited by Phillip Lopate: 75 diverse selections of the form.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) by Stephen King. At once a reflection on a beloved writer’s life and a guide to the genre.
Two inspirational and informative podcasts for writers:
- Grammar Girl: short episodes covering style, punctuation, grammar and the history of the English language, from Mignon Fogarty, the founder of the advice site Quick and Dirty Tips.
- I Should Be Writing: advice on the practicalities, trials and roadblocks of the writing life, hosted by Mur Lafferty.